ESPN once called Musial the most underrated athlete ever. In 1999, when Major League Baseball held a fan vote to name its All-Century Team, a special committee had to add Musial because the fans did not vote him in as one of the 10 best outfielders ever. Ten! He missed the cut, even though only Aaron had more total bases. Only Tris Speaker and Pete Rose hit more doubles. Using Bill James's formula, only Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds created more runs. Still, Musial did not get America's vote. For most of the nation, Stan the Man is a name that has faded into the great American past like singers wearing tuxedoes, John Wayne movies and kids shooting marbles.
But not in St. Louis. No, here they shout out for Stan Musial. They hold a citywide campaign—Stand for Stan!—to encourage President Obama to award Musial the Presidential Medal of Freedom, something like an American knighthood, a medal that has already been given to Musial contemporaries Aaron, Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Frank Robinson. Fans are encouraged to have their photos taken with a paper Flat Stan the Man, a play off the children's book, Flat Stanley. People meet at the Musial statue in front of the new ballpark; the Musial statue has long been St. Louis's favorite meeting spot, even before it was moved from in front of the old Busch Stadium to the new one. And during spring training in 2009 Cardinals players came back to the clubhouse to find a reading assignment, a story about Musial that manager Tony La Russa had printed out for them to read and discuss.
"To me," La Russa says, "Stan's spirit is very much a part of what we're trying to do here."
STAN MUSIAL WAS NEVER THROWN OUT of a game. This is a pretty remarkable thing. He played in the majors from 1941 through '63 (with a year spent in the Navy in '45). He was the fifth-youngest player in baseball when he began and the third oldest when he walked away. Musial dealt with at least 40 different home plate umpires—from Augie Donatelli to Ziggy Sears—and he never got one of them on a bad day. Or, more to the point, they never got him on a bad day.
There's one Musial story that has been told many different ways. According to different versions it happened in Brooklyn or Philadelphia; it happened in the top of the ninth or in extra innings. It led to a grand slam or a heroic homer into the lights as in The Natural. The many versions of the story suggest that there were countless other incidents like it in Musial's career. But this is how the story really happened.
It was April 18, 1954, in Chicago. The Cardinals trailed 3--0 in the seventh, and lefty Paul Minner was on the mound for the Cubs. There was a man on first, one out, when Musial smacked a double down the rightfield line. Or, anyway, the Cardinals thought it was a double. Wally Moon, the man on first, ran around the bases to score. Musial stood happily at second. The Cardinals' bench cheered. And apparently nobody noticed that first base umpire Lee Ballanfant had called the ball foul.
No footage of the play remains, of course, so we only get what we can read in the newspaper reports: Apparently the ball was definitively fair. Cardinals players came racing out of the dugout to go after Ballanfant, starting with shortstop Solly Hemus. Donatelli, the crew chief, who was behind home plate (and who apparently realized that Ballanfant had blown the call), threw Hemus out of the game. Cardinals manager Eddie Stanky was right behind. Donatelli threw him out of the game too. Peanuts Lowrey rushed out, and Donatelli was telling him to get back or he would get tossed as well. And it was about then that Musial, who apparently was not entirely sure why there was so much commotion, wandered over to Donatelli.
"What happened, Augie?" Musial asked. "It didn't count, huh?" Donatelli nodded and said the ball had been called foul.
"Well," Musial said, "there's nothing you can do about it."